With just a few exceptions, ticket holders walking toward the entrances of the Overture Center for the Arts for Tuesday’s opening night of “Miss Saigon” reacted politely to the 20 people handing out hundreds of flyers containing a highly critical essay written by an Asian American about the popular but controversial musical.
But ticket holders who stopped to talk about the flyer, as well as the Overture administration’s public stumble while attempting to address criticisms of the musical over the past several days, said they were heading to their seats with open minds.
One Overture season-ticket holder said she was taking the same mind-set for seeing “Miss Saigon” that she had for “The King and I,” another musical that just played at the Downtown venue which has also drawn criticism from Asian Americans.
“I’m going to look at the play in the context of the times,” said Denise Babish, of Evansville. “If I look at it through the lens of 2019 there is a total disconnect. But I’m going to look at it for the time that it is meant to represent, which is a totally different era.”
Jesse Gray, of Baraboo, said he wanted to see the musical so he could determine if the criticisms of it are valid.
“I think it’s important for us to observe things from multiple angles, even ones that aren’t the most popular opinions,” he said. “We need to see things in other ways and keep an open mind before seeing them. I always try to do that before I have an opinion on something.”
The essay — titled “What’s Wrong with ‘Miss Saigon’?” — that filled both sides of the flyer being distributed, was written by Timothy Yu, professor of English and Asian American studies at UW-Madison. Yu said the musical has “been the target of repeated protests” by people who have felt “for decades” that the show both perpetuates stereotypes of Asians and “distorts their history and glamorizes their traumas.’”
Yu said he was happy with how most people reacted after they were handed the flyers by a group that included students, professors, administrators and friends of the Asian American Studies program. “People were saying, ‘We heard people talking about this.’ That’s exactly what we wanted to have happen,” he said.
Not all were polite, according to Yu. He said a man who identified himself as a Vietnam veteran spit in front of a woman handing out flyers. A few others made negative comments.
Opening night for “Miss Saigon” capped a tumultuous week and a half for Overture. Last month, the arts center announced it would host a panel discussion on March 27 to address some of the concerns raised about the musical, which has been met with protests in other cities in the past.
But the morning of the event, Overture abruptly canceled the panel and said it would be rescheduled for a later date.
That decision was quickly regretted by Overture CEO Sandra Gajic, who wrote in a letter to the editor published in Tuesday’s Wisconsin State Journal that the panel’s cancellation was a “misstep” and a “regretful mistake.”
Overture has made inroads to make its education and community engagement programs more inclusive, Gajic said in an interview Tuesday. But, “We need to start applying that to our mainstage programming, much more actively — so that we always keep that criteria in mind, more than what we have done so far,” she said.
“From my perspective and I think the senior team here, we agree that this is one of the strongest lessons we’ve learned: We really need to think a little bit more (about) what is it that comes to our main stages.”
The center’s longtime Community Advisory Board also needs more Asian and other diverse voices, Gajic said.
Yu appreciated Gajic’s apology but hopes to see more than just words from Overture administrators in the future. “I’m waiting to see what actions they are going to take before I say anything more,” he said.
Maintaining the conversation
After Overture canceled the panel discussion, several academics and others scheduled to be at Overture that night instead hosted a “teach in” on the sidewalk in front of the building.
Handing out the essay by Yu – which he originally offered to be published in the “Miss Saigon” program — on the opening night of “Miss Saigon’s” six-day run was an effort to keep that conversation going, said Lori Lopez, an associate professor of media and cultural studies at UW-Madison.
Lopez, who teaches about Asian American representation, wrote a book on Asian American media activism and organizes a yearly Asian American film festival on campus, said she was led to believe she would be on the Overture panel but then was dropped from the plan.
After a personal phone apology from Gajic, Lopez accepted an offer from Overture to see “Miss Saigon” on opening night.
“I did want to go, because I’m a professor of Asian American media and I think that making informed critiques of the show is really important,” she said before the performance.
However, Lopez said she would not participate in a future Overture panel about “Miss Saigon.”
“I think we feel the time has passed,” she said. “In my last conversation (with Gajic), we said we’re not interested in a panel discussion; we’re interested in having them show us through their actions that they support Asian Americans. … I feel the ball is in their court to actually show us a plan and not just say, ‘Let’s talk about this some more.’ ”
After seeing the show for the first time Tuesday night, Lopez said she came away “more frustrated than ever.”
She recalled how the story centers on a woman “who suffers so much and is so mistreated” that she ends up believing “there is no place in the world for her” and that the best place for her child is with a white family. “What a horrible message that sends,” she said.
Lopez, who has an Asian mother and a white father, said she also was bothered by the play’s assumption that it was better for a mixed-race child to grow up in the United States. “That’s pretty awful, too,” she said.
A meeting Monday night to plan the leaflet distribution drew Asian American students from across campus, Lopez said. “We now have a Facebook group with 173 members, where we’ve been having conversations about this.
“It’s not just students and Asian Americans. It’s also community members, people who have heard about this and are upset about it and want to show their support,” she said.
Yu said he would not accept Gajic’s offer of a “Miss Saigon” ticket. Overture’s cancellation of the public panel about the play represented “the very problem that we were trying to draw attention to,” he said, “which is that when Asian Americans from their own perspectives wanted to voice their own way of seeing this issue, to Overture that felt too hot, too inflammatory, and we had to stay outside on the sidewalk saying it instead of inside.”
Ticket sales not affected
Ticket sales for “Miss Saigon” were on pace with sales expectations, and there have been no requests for refunds, Gajic said Tuesday.
However, a group from the Edgewood College Office of Student Inclusion and Involvement canceled its planned trip to see “Miss Saigon” on Saturday.
Touring Broadway musicals are booked at Overture Center by Broadway Across America. Overture Center has a nine-year contract remaining with BAA, whose efforts to send some “Miss Saigon” performers for the proposed panel discussion didn’t work out because of scheduling conflicts, Gajic said.
The producers of “Miss Saigon,” which was revamped for its 2016-18 Broadway run, also feel “very, very strongly that they have, over the years, addressed in a constructive way what they felt were the concerns coming from the Asian American communities,” she said.